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CelticsWeek #3: Growing pains

The Celtics fumbled their season-opening win streak, but responded with back-to-back wins.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I ended this column by asking how much further we thought the Celtics could carry their season-opening win streak. Well, we didn’t have to wait long, did we? Let’s talk about what happened as the Celtics completed their third week of regular season basketball.

Boston Celtics, Week 3: 2-2 record, +29 differential

Game 6: L @ Minnesota, 114-109 (OT)

Game 7: L @ Philadelphia, 106-103

Game 8: W vs Brooklyn, 121-107

Game 9: W vs Toronto, 117-94

NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Alas, the loss column! This was to happen eventually, of course — the NBA season is far too long for perfection to be a discussion — but you always hope to see that zero endure for as long as possible.

The Celtics felt the sting of defeat in each of their first two games this week, dropping a tough overtime contest to the Minnesota Timberwolves after a brilliant overtime from young Wolves wing Anthony Edwards and failing to come back after an unsteady performance against the Philadelphia 76ers. After that, they faced down their first back-to-back of the young season, and successfully averted what could have quickly spiraled into a losing streak of its own by triumphing over the Brooklyn Nets (again) and the Toronto Raptors to advance to 7-2.

Losing the first matchup against Philadelphia stings. It was the first of a four-game regular season series, and we seldom remember November basketball in the grand scheme of things anyways. That said, the Sixers are showing signs of serious growth compared to the plateau they seemed to hit last season. Tyrese Maxey is playing like a bona fide star, and head coach Nick Nurse has seemed to revolutionize what felt like a stale defensive scheme.

In the wake of the Damian Lillard trade, the Milwaukee Bucks felt like this team’s most immediate competition for the Eastern Conference crown. They may still be — their talent level certainly exceeds the results they’ve seen thus far — but Philadelphia has thrown its hat into the ring in a noteworthy way. It will be nice to see a tougher effort from the Celtics when these two teams meet again this coming week — a game that has some sneaky importance, as the Celtics will once again travel to Philadelphia needing a road win to gain an edge in the season series for tiebreaker purposes.

What’s trending: The best of Jaylen, the worst of Jaylen

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Jaylen Brown was flat-out terrible against the 76ers. There’s no other way to describe it. He shot just 4-of-13 from the field, and that bleak figure was bolstered by a couple of buckets as part of the team’s doomed comeback attempt. He made just two field goals before the fourth quarter, and was generally victimized as a defender against a Philly offense that didn’t necessarily play its best game. That level of performance just can’t fly from the Celtics’ All-NBA co-star.

Thankfully, it didn’t. Brown was the linchpin of the Celtics’ consecutive wins on consecutive nights to conclude the week, scoring 28 against the Nets and 29 against the Raptors — both team highs. Each were comfortable Celtics wins, and it’s no coincidence that Brown provided an efficient scoring punch in both.

Brown is the kind of player who will make his off nights look bad. He’s not a natural initiator, and his handle can come and go. He’s one of the league’s elite play finishers, great both in the paint and behind the three-point arc, but on nights where one or both of those skills go dry, the team will really feel it. Thus far, we’ve continued to see some ups and downs; a little more consistency would be a welcome sight.

Player of the Week: Sam Hauser

4 GP, 21.6 MPG, 12.8 PPG (53% FG, 50% 3PT), 3.5 REB, -12

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics’ bench enters the equation for the first time this season! Raw plus-minus marks Hauser’s minutes as a slight negative for the Celtics this week, but a quick evaluation says that’s just not accurate. The Celtics have been starved for some offensive punch from their reserves all season long; the core six are capable of accomplishing a lot, but in the regular season, tertiary contributions are immensely important. Hauser has the first Boston reserve to answer the bell.

After struggling in his first three games and cracking double digits in scoring just once in his first five, Hauser scored at least 11 in all four of the team’s games this week. After starting the season 3-of-15 from behind the three-point arc, he’s made 21 of his last 38 threes. Welcome to the season, kid.

We know what Hauser is. He’s a nice piece of player development from the organization — an undrafted prospect who has become a no-doubt NBA rotation player. He’s more floor than ceiling, though. Hauser isn’t going to become an All-Star; he won’t be creating his own shots any time soon, and his defensive ceiling sits somewhere in the neighborhood of “well, he won’t kill your scheme.” That’s all fine... as long as the threes fall.

Since that slow start, they certainly have. Hauser’s three-point percentage has not-so-quietly risen to a blistering 45%, and it’s come on a career-high 5.9 attempts per night. Sometimes it’s just that simple. The Celtics don’t need any razzle dazzle from Sam Hauser, they just need him to be a sniper. He lived up to the bill this week.

The Parquet Play: An old-school connection

After a pair of seismic offseason trades, the Celtics have a vastly different look to them than in years past. Sometimes, though, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This connection from Jayson Tatum to Al Horford to Jaylen Brown is one that could have happened at almost any point in recent Celtics memory.

I love this. It’s a great initial pass from Tatum, a lefty underhand bouncer that takes advantage of an aggressive Raptors defense cheating up on him. From there, it’s vintage Al Horford in the paint, quick and decisive to keep the ball moving to the corner. The pass pulls rookie Gradey Dick juuuust far enough out of position to create a lane, and from there, the rim never stood a chance against Brown. Sharp stuff! These fellas know each other well.

Around the League: Are the Grizzlies anything? The Clippers may not be

With the Celtics due for a date with Memphis next week, it feels like a good time to check in on what has proven to be a difficult start to the season for the Grizzlies and dear old friend Marcus Smart. Memphis opened up the season with six consecutive losses, and currently own the Western Conference’s worst record as of this writing, at 2-8.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The absence of Ja Morant — suspended for 25 games due to conduct issues — has hurt a Grizzlies franchise who, in recent seasons, has overperformed with their franchise player unavailable. Smart and Derrick Rose were meant to be the team’s safety blankets during Morant’s absence, but the former has been overtasked in Memphis’ dreadful offense with a career-high 21.1% usage rate, while the latter was flat-out dreadful before suffering a knee injury. The jury will obviously remain out on this team until they return to full strength, but early returns have been pretty bleak for these erstwhile contenders.

Speaking of erstwhile contenders, last week, we included the Los Angeles Clippers in our rundown of the NBA’s early standout teams. Well, perhaps that was a bit premature. Since the acquisition of James Harden, the Clippers have turned in a losing streak that would be frankly miserable to cover in a format like this. They’re losers of five consecutive games, four of which came this week after Harden’s debut with the team. They’ve recorded a plus-minus of -67 with Harden on the court.

It is, of course, far too early to truly pass judgement on most teams in the NBA. But while the regular season is quite long, it tends to pass by on some teams faster than others. The Grizzlies and Clippers are teams dealing with some remarkably strange circumstances, and in the process of attempting to adjust to the Morant and Harden situations, they could very well find themselves running out of runway sooner than anticipated.

Up Next:

Looking forward, the Celtics have another four-game slate ahead of them this coming week. It’s a week of seconds, as they host the New York Knicks for the teams’ second face-off of the year, before kicking off a four-game road trip with a rematch in Philadelphia against the 76ers. From there, they’ll travel to Toronto for their second tilt with the Raptors before traveling to Memphis to face Marcus Smart as an opponent for the first in his NBA career.

Predicting the win streak is off the table. Now, we can merely root for a new one. Can the Celtics even the score against the 76ers in their second showdown? Will the reunion with Smart be an absolute emotional rollercoaster? We’ll discuss these questions and more in next week’s column.

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